Final Thoughts on Doubts
By: Dr. Gary Habermas
Christian doubt of several varieties is much more prevalent than many believers realize and it can be an extremely painful malady for those who suffer from its affects. In this manuscript we have attempted to cover a wide range of material on the subject. Even so, much more remains to be done.
I have postulated that it is important for particular doubts to be identified as to the predominant variety which is present in order to best facilitate healing. So although doubts are frequently compound in nature, they can still be treated. The practice of biblical strategies is crucial to the conquering of Christian uncertainty and we have attempted to point out several of these in this text.
A. When a Warning is Required
As Os Guinness so clearly asserts in an excellent discussion, there too frequently come times in Christian’s lives when it might appear obvious that a fellow believer, because of doubts, is in danger of denying some portion of his faith. In such a case, in spite of all the evidences, or emotional supports, or admonitions to the will, a believer may continue down the path away from biblical teaching, refusing to avail himself of the needed solutions. And here is perhaps the clearest indication that such doubt ultimately comes down to a matter of the will: some persons just do not choose to react in a biblical manner.
Such a state of mind is very serious and it often requires a combination of traits by way of response. Sensitivity is crucial, especially the discernment needed to detect such a condition in another individual. Boldness may also be required, especially in cases where a strong response is needed due to the dire consequences at stake. Here even the meekest of believers may find himself in a situation where he is best positioned to respond to one in need. The possible dangers should outweigh the individual’s desire not to get involved.
How might such a condition be recognized? Initially, it should be emphasized that there may be no clear-cut assurances that such a state has been reached. For instance, the individual in question may have exaggerated his reactions in order to get attention. Or the earmarks may simply have been missed or misinterpreted; maybe the person has kept most of the true conditions to himself.
At any rate, there are still some signs which, if they are observed in another, might indicate some concerns of this nature. Guinness notes one such factor as a constant complaining and grumbling against God, reminiscent of the attitude of ancient Israel. Another warning could come from the presence of questions about God, but with an attitude change which reveals that the doubts may actually have become unbelief. And in the end Guinness notes that the last stage may be signaled by the individual who denies everything but his basic belief in God. Here there is still an awareness and fear of God, but the emotions actually drive the person away instead of back towards Him.
To these signs, a few additional ones might be added. Insensitivity to spiritual things is certainly a warning at least of a dulled spiritual awareness. The lack of Christian activity (or “fruit”) is a scriptural indication of danger (Matt. 7:18-20; Heb. 6:7-8). Also, another pointer is the way in which God is spoken of by this person. Flippant remarks or callous language about Him can indicate problems as well.
Lastly, an important warning sign is illustrated by the Christian who regularly experiences a stultification of his will with specific regard to the state of his faith. Thus, given a situation where a decision must be made for or against continuing to follow Christ, the individual appears to be unable to choose. One young man who came to see me manifested just this problem. Having been involved in a sinful practice for a number of years, he had begun to drift away from his Christian convictions. In fact, in this case it was his lifestyle which was the primary cause of his growing preference for another philosophy; he was shifting his allegiance. It was necessary that he be confronted in clear terms in order to warn him of how his will had changed.
However, we must emphasize here that we are not called upon to make pronouncements concerning when an individual may have reached “the point of no return.” This matter is up to God alone and ultimately known only to Him. We are, rather, to watch and judge ourselves first so that we do not fall (1 Cor. 10-12; 11:31). We can then also provide genuine help (by the Lord’s power) when it is needed and wherever possible, but not to act as the judge and jury.
But another caution also needs to be voiced here. It is certainly possible that the sensitive Christian reader who is not presently in danger of denying his faith will study this previous list of signs and fear that he is in a more serious state than he is, in actuality. This individual might well be reminded to apply the Misbelief Therapy spoken of earlier. Or if the person is concerned about sin in his life, forgiveness may be sought from the God who has promised to forgive. In general, the Bible teaches that wherever true conviction remains, there is certainly hope and the possibility of forgiveness.
But what about those who are in danger at this point, as with those who actually do manifest some of these signs? What might believers do to help them? Guinness reminds the Christian that before any action is undertaken he should be sure that the problem has been prayerfully and correctly diagnosed. Such is too serious of a matter to take lightly. One must be sure that one’s motives are clear, as well. There is no room for actions due to pride or resentment, for instance.
Once these cautions have been observed, however, one does need to act in those cases where it is still plain that a fellow believer might be in danger of denying some portion of his faith. And after ascertaining if the person is at least willing to talk, it might be suggested, first, that there is an initial need to listen closely in order to correctly identify the type of doubt involved and how far it has progressed. Here one may choose to utilize some of the same data which we developed earlier for the identification of one’s own uncertainty. At any rate, the doubter should be apprised of the situation, including why he is expressing these doubts.
Second, the counselor should assist the doubter in working through the appropriate steps which apply to the particular type of uncertainty in question. Helping the doubter not only to understand the cause but also a cure for his problem could be very helpful in assisting him through this difficult time.
Another step in the possible healing process is to confront the doubter with both the peril involved in his indecision (or perhaps even in his actual decision against his Christian faith if such has already been made), along with God’s promise of eternal life for those who correctly respond to His call. This is the point at which we have to be firm in our response to his condition. A possible approach involves a discussion of God’s judgment, including a treatment of His future promises. But we must be careful not to pronounce any specific judgment on the individual himself since God is His judge and we do not know his final condition. In other words, a general warning concerning God’s judgment juxtaposed with a challenge regarding eternal life might be very helpful.
This emphasis on eternity is similar to our discussion in the last chapter about providing one’s will with a vision for action. There we said that the best motivation for Christian behavior occurs when God’s perspective influences us enough that His reasons for commitment become our reasons. And it was concluded that there is no greater impetus for faith and personal action than the prospect of eternal life in heaven with Jesus Christ, which is personally guaranteed by Him to be a creative, inspiring, learning experience which lasts forever. Such is the chief New Testament motivation for a believer’s commitment.
Lastly, the individual needs to be reminded that God can forgive our sins, including our doubts concerning Him. The hope of forgiveness might be just what the individual needs at this point in order to repent. Of course, true conviction and repentance is the work of the Holy Spirit; it is not even in the domain of human abilities. Nonetheless, we should stress the need for a true decision. Believers are called to counsel fellow believers in this regard (Gal. 6:1). In fact, few Christian activities are as rewarding as the prospect of helping an erring believer back to the Lord (Js. 5:19-20).
So once we have prayerfully diagnosed a problem to the best of our ability,ascertaining if our motives are biblically correct, we need to confront the person at whatever level is needed. We have suggested that the counselor initially listen, identifying the type of doubt involved and approximately how far it has progressed. Then, working through the appropriate steps with them for that particular doubt could be vitally important in their recovery. Explaining both the seriousness of God’s judgment and His promise of eternal life can supply the biblical impetus for action. Prompting the person to obey the Lord in repentance is a last step to restoration.
Of course, it should be recognized that regular follow-up will probably be needed. In fact, fellowship and constant progress in one’s faith are especially important here to help insure a final victory. And since such restoration is ultimately due to God’s prompting and activity, His guidance should be sought by such means as prayer, Scripture study and meditation, including both the counselor and the counselee. Doubt prevention techniques can be applied both to oneself and to another who is in need. Remembering C.S. Lewis’ admonition that believers are rarely argued away from Christianity in an abrupt fashion but more regularly “drift” away, we need to be ever watching (1 Cor. 10:12).
B. The Christian’s Hope
Few things are perceived by doubting individuals to be as blessed as is the prospect of being relieved of one’s uncertainty, especially with regard to one’s eternal destiny. And after everything has been said, it must still be acknowledged that doubt can even lead to positive results which otherwise might not occur. The correcting of one’s thinking, the experience of more fruitful times of Bible study, prayer, witnessing and fellowship, the initiation of Christian meditation, a deeper pursuit of scholarly study and cultivation of viewing one’s life from God’s eternal perspective are just some of the benefits which might arise from the conquering of one’s Christian doubts. Each of these can help motivate a believer to a deeper relationship with the Lord.
Scripture relates that Christ came to remove the fear of death (Heb. 2:14-15). We are also told that the hope of Jesus’ resurrection is to assure the believer of eternal life, an inheritance which is impervious to corruption and which is reserved for us in heaven (1 Pet. 1:3-5; cf. Matt. 6:19-20). Such is God’s promise to the one who is committed to Him.
In this way, the conquering of doubt can actually lead straight to a re-orientation process which cultivates God’s eternal perspective. A glimpse of His holiness and the reality of eternal life with Him should motivate us to a lifetime of commitment, by His grace and power.
Backus and Chapian address the subject of this change as follows:
Jesus Christ is the foundation of our lives, not ourselves alone and not another person or persons. When we become God’s children the great I dies and there’s a change, sweet as morning, that takes place and we trade banners: the old used I for a shiny impenetrable His.
In this process, the believer should recognize that loving and praising God for His own sake (apart from His promises and blessings to us) is the highest good in the universe. But fellowship with Him forever is also promised to us. Such blessings will be beyond our greatest expectations.
- As mentioned at the outset, this manuscript has been composed as a follow-up to the Spring Lectureship at Western Seminary (January, 1988) and is part of a much larger (projected) manuscript for publication as a book. But even so, more work needs to be done, like the light which other disciplines such as psychology, psychiatry, education, sociology and exegetical theology might shed on the subject of doubt.
- Guinness devotes a chapter to this aspect of the problem of uncertainty (Chapter 15). It should be noted that the doctrine of eternal security is not being denied here. As a matter of fact, this doctrine is not even being discussed at this juncture or elsewhere in the manuscript.
- Guinness, pp. 239-242.
- See especially Part 4 in this manuscript for details.
- Guinness, pp. 243-244.
- See Part 2 for this emphasis.
- Even with the doctrine of eternal security, we can never finally tell whether a person ever truly committed his life to Christ in the first place, for instance (see I Jn. 2:19).
- See Part 5, B. The highest good in the universe is arguably to praise God for His own sake. But our point here is that the New Testament utilizes the prospect of eternal life as the chief motivation for Christian action.
- Part 5, D, E.
- Mere Christianity, p. 124.
- Backus and Chapian, p. 41.